Talkin Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues: Dylan’s first song of note?

By Tony Attwood

In pulling together all the reviews on this site (getting on for 350 at the time I write this) and putting them into something that I think resembles the order in which they were written, I’ve now (January 2017) gone back to the earliest days.

Until this point the Chronology Files began in 1962, but I had in the back of my mind that at least a couple of the songs on the first volume of the Bootleg Series were actually written in 1961 and needed to be incorporated.   So since today is a public holiday in England I’ve spent a pleasant hour or so, going back through the information, and trying to see what should be listed from before 1962.

Of course I am not 100% sure of the order in which things were written, but I think the first one that we ought to note is this: the “Talkin Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues”

It is an absolutely straightforward talking blues.  If lines such as

Well, I don’t know, but I’ve been told
The streets in heaven are lined with gold
I ask you how things could get much worse
If the Russians happen to get up there first
Wowee! pretty scary!

are completely familiar to you, then you know the music.  What we have here is a different set of lyrics and what seems to be Dylan’s first recorded talking blues.

The regular story that circulates about the origin of this song (and I am certainly not going to contradict it) says that the New York Herald Tribune ran a story about a Father’s Day cruise on the Hudson River to Bear Mountain which went wrong because a lot of counterfeit tickets had been sold, resulting in overcrowding and ultimately the sinking of the boat.

Noel Stookey, who became part of Peter Paul and Mary, and who had become friends with Dylan, showed his new pal the report, and according to Mr Stookey, Dylan turned up the next day with the song all done and dusted.

To give a bit of context, as I understand things (not having been there) Bear Mountain is part of the Hudson Highlands within New York State, and overlooks the Hudson River.  On a clear day you can see Manhattan.

The story Dylan tells is not the story told in the newspaper, but is enlarged to create more comic effect – Heylin suggests that Dylan was placing himself as a “folkie Charlie Chaplin” and it was, it seems, the song that got him noticed.

The lyrics are sung by a naive young man being sold a ticket for himself and his wife and children, thinking he was going see some bears and a mountain.  He finds there are crowds of people trying to get on the boat…

Took the wife ’n’ kids down to the pier
Six thousand people there
Everybody had a ticket for the trip
“Oh well,” I said, “it’s a pretty big ship
Besides, anyway, the more the merrier”

Well, we all got on ’n’ what d’ya think
That big old boat started t’ sink
More people kept a-pilin’ on
That old ship was a-slowly goin’ down
Funny way t’ start a picnic

It’s a fairly straightforward musical satire, but for audiences who had not heard this sort of slapstick music before it clearly could have an impact, particularly I suspect, the notion that the happy group of people all going for a family day out, exhibit the traditional behaviour of people who have paid their money to have a good time, have then had a few drinks, and then get a bit miffed as things start to go awry.  It is, as Heylin implies, a classic silent movie script.

Well, I soon lost track of m’ kids ’n’ wife
So many people there I never saw in m’ life
That old ship sinkin’ down in the water
Six thousand people tryin’ t’ kill each other
Dogs a-barkin’, cats a-meowin’
Women screamin’, fists a-flyin’, babies cryin’
Cops a-comin’, me a-runnin’
Maybe we just better call off the picnic

The narrator gets punched, loses consciousness and it seems loses his clothes and possessions and survives but vows never to go out on a picnic again.

Now, I don’t care just what you do
If you wanta have a picnic, that’s up t’ you
But don’t tell me about it, I don’t wanta hear it
’Cause, see, I just lost all m’ picnic spirit
Stay in m’ kitchen, have m’ own picnic . . .
In the bathroom

The twist however comes in the last verse – the coda.  I call it that because one review of the song I read rather sweetly calls the penultimate verse “the codetta”, so I think I am ok calling this verse the coda – the final element in a piece of classical music that works everything through to its ultimate conclusions…

Now, it don’t seem to me quite so funny
What some people are gonna do f’r money
There’s a bran’ new gimmick every day
Just t’ take somebody’s money away
I think we oughta take some o’ these people
And put ’em on a boat, send ’em up to Bear Mountain . . .
For a picnic

That would have got the left wing audience in the folk clubs – let’s round up all the guys in these money making schemes and send them off down the river so they can fight each other.

Today the piece doesn’t seem that revolutionary, but if you can think of a time when the audience might well not have been familiar with the talking blues, and certainly hadn’t come across too many songs that poked fun at the scam merchants, (we are here in the days before the protest song was created) you can see why it would have got Bob’s career going.

So there we are.  As of today the boundary is extended back a little and this is now our first song in the Chronology files.

The Discussion Group

We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase in, on your Facebook page or go to

The Chronology Files

There are reviews of Dylan’s compositions from all parts of his life, up to the most recent writings, but of late I have been trying to put these into chronological order, and fill in the gaps as I work.

All the songs reviewed on this site are also listed on the home page in alphabetical order – just scroll down a bit once you get there


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6 Responses to Talkin Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues: Dylan’s first song of note?

  1. Larry Fyffe says:

    Bear Mountain’s on the old vinyl bootlegs “Talkin Bear Mountain Pinic Massacre Blues”, side 1, no 1,
    (Trade Mark of Quality) and “Bob Dylan: Early 60’s
    Revisited”, side 2, no 8. Two slightly different versions thereof with both ‘bedroom’ and ‘bathroom’ being jokingly mentioned on one of them, and Bob correcting himself a bit on the other.

  2. Larry Fyffe says:

    The satirical tone of the song reminds one of the story of the sinking of the Mariposa Belle told by Stephen’s Leacock in “The Marine Excursions Of The Knights Of Pythias” from his Sunshine Sketches Of A Little Town.

  3. Ted Feigenbaum says:

    Bob seemed to be honing his Woody Guthrie impersonation. Pretty clever commentary on a small time scam.

  4. Mary says:

    There was a paddle boat or side wheel passenger boat called “the General Slocum” that sank in the East River of New York City on June 15, 1904. Chartered by a church for a day trip picnic event. Out of 1,358 passengers, plus crew, only 321 passengers survived. There are landmark memorials in various places in the neighborhood where Bob lived. This may have been an inspiration for that song.

  5. Keith says:

    I first heard this track on the ’90s ‘Bootleg’ release and lapped it up along with all the out takes that had not been included in the early albums. Like many a Dylan fan I had been on the roller coaster of enchantment, awe, puzzlement, disappointment, hope of revival, disillusionment and then rediscovery since 1963 when I was lent a copy of the first album in Croydon, South London, England. Learning that there had been only 5,000 copies pressed of the first album made me think how remarkable it was that I come across a copy. 1988’s Oh Mercy had nailed me after years of thinking the glory days were over. 1990’s Under the Red Sky puzzled me (as it seems to have done the producer Don Was). The decision to release the unissued archive material, especially the glorious early sixties tracks, was at least an admission by the man that the kind of songs that drew many of us to him back in those far off days was truly worth revisiting and not, as he once evasively suggested, written just to make money.

  6. Hello there Tony, Thank you for posting this analysis of a song from Bob Dylan’s Music Box: Come and join us inside and listen to every song composed, recorded or performed by Bob Dylan, plus all the great covers streaming on YouTube, Spotify, Deezer and SoundCloud plus so much more… including this link.

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